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Out Of Africa 

Local business imports art, exports aid

How often do you receive an invitation in the mail to an art opening that not only comes within a music CD, but also lists "fantastic coffins" among the items you can expect to see? In my experience, not often. Yet this is only one example of how Natural Selection challenges the standard paradigm for a business based on the making of art.

I call it a "business based on the making of art" because I'm not comfortable calling it a gallery -- for one thing, the art isn't hanging in a traditional venue but rather in a residential home. Yet at the same time, it is a gallery, so perhaps it's just me who needs to expand my definition of what constitutes an art gallery. Suffice it to say, this was the first clue that I had stumbled upon something outside the typical purview of an art exhibit.

Michael Schenck, a recent graduate of Davidson College, is the owner of Natural Selection, a gallery that focuses on the arts and crafts of the continent of Africa. In the early 1990s, Michael and his family began traveling throughout Africa, but it wasn't until 1996 when Michael's parents, Kathy and Weldon Schenck, made a lasting commitment to a land they had come to love by purchasing a 35,000 acre property in southeastern Zimbabwe's largest privately owned wildlife conservancy, the Save Land Conservancy.

Once the Schencks had purchased their property, they soon set their sights on higher, more lofty goals: building relationships with their neighbors, the Shona people, in a post-apartheid Zimbabwe. In many ways, the start of the relationship was completely and totally serendipitous, but the intent was nonetheless purposeful. And this is where the inspiration for Michael's business has its roots.

Shortly after the Schencks purchased their property, they set up an informal meeting between Save landowners and those of the village, the Shona people, so that they could begin to build a meaningful relationship. In the course of this meeting, a central theme emerged from the women living in this arid, drought-prone area: How can we possibly make any money for ourselves, so that we can support our families? Another meeting was planned and more ideas were presented, and from this came the birth of the Nyangambe Embroidery Project, as well as the beginnings of the art business, Natural Selection.

Embroidery is an honored tradition among the women in Nyangambe, the skills passed from generation to generation. After the first meeting where so many concerns were raised, Michael's mother Kathy envisioned a way to help. At the next meeting, she passed out material and thread among the women so that they could create samples, and from these samples, orders were made for dinner napkins, placemats and, later, duvet covers and pillow cases. The craft and the quality of the embroidery was so high that soon orders for all of these items skyrocketed. Before too long, the embroidery project had accomplished its goal, as sales of these items provided much-needed personal income for the women and their families. In addition to improving their quality of life, the project has also elevated learning opportunities in the village, as profits from sales have been used to build a new school and purchase educational items.

Michael credits his mother's brainchild -- Nyangambe Embroidery Project -- as the inspiration for his business. He says, "Seeing the Shona people empowered by using their skills to produce high quality, culturally relevant products that in turn provided them with a stable income that also benefited their community at large made me want to take this model and apply it to crafts and arts across Africa."

And this is precisely what Michael and his associate, Meagan Gleason, are attempting to do here in Charlotte through the business called Natural Selection. Both locally and through their website (www.naturalselectiongallery.com), they're marketing and selling items made in Africa and returning a portion of the profits to aid communities as well as conservation projects. Natural Selection is a by-appointment-only gallery that showcases a wide variety of art and craft items being made in Africa today. At the site, you will see masks, paintings, textiles, stone sculptures, leather sofas and more. You will also see an outrageous Ashanti coffin (made to look like a lion) from Ghana. These aren't typical African tourist items; instead, they're carefully chosen pieces that represent a sampling of contemporary work made in Africa.

Of course, in any business of this nature, there's always the issue of potential exploitation of another culture for financial gain: What one person might see as a humanitarian effort, another might see as a capitalist venture. Yet what impresses me most about this particular endeavor is the notion that Natural Selection seeks to create a model for a successful business that's socially responsible at the same time. As Schenck puts it, "Natural Selection envisions a world in which companies place more importance on what they can give to Africa than what they take from it. We recognize the tremendous talent of African artisans and hope to give them the opportunity to work to benefit their local communities while expressing themselves artistically."

(To learn more about Natural Selection, visit their website at www.naturalselectiongallery.com. To make an appointment to view the artwork, call (704) 770-0284.) *

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